Grapevine: They Live

Roddy Piper in They LiveI have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubble gum.

Some images and phrases worm their way into the zeitgeist so powerfully that they completely eclipse their often-forgotten origins. The Sicilian proverb “Revenge is a dish best served cold,” or “I reject your reality and substitute my own,” from the 1985 film The Dungeonmaster (Even then, it’s probably a misquote of The Doctor from The Deadly Assassin). Or Kris Kristofferson’s 1969 song “Me and Bobby McGee”. Stay Asleep.

A lot of people have a strong knee-jerk negative reaction when something undergoes major changes in adaptation. I get that, but it’s not a reaction I share. If anything, I think I prefer it when remakes go pretty far afield: it’s like, here’s a new thing that is a lot like that old thing you liked. Don’t get me wrong: Jem and the Holograms is going to suck so hard anyone in its direct path will need to be treated for exposure to Hawking radiation. But it’s not like anyone is going to say, “Yeah, the big problem with the 1998 Lost in Space movie is that they strayed too far from the source material.” When a remake or adaptation goes off the rails, it’s hardly ever because they “changed too much”: it’s far more likely to be because what they changed it to was a bad idea, or because the source material wasn’t amenable to adapting. Obey.World War Z doesn’t suck because they changed it; it sucks because there was no way in hell adapting a pseudo-documentary into an action film was ever going to work (Or, as one critic put it, “They took an unfilmable book and turned it into an unwatchable movie”). The screenwriter for The Seeker may well have bragged that he didn’t actually read the book (Why do they do this? My best guess is that it’s because in Hollywood, the last thing you want to be accused of is being uncreative. To a Hollywood mind, “I read the book carefully and tried to make a faithful adaptation,” is essentially the same thing as, “I’m an unimaginative hack who plagiarized a beloved author.”), and yes, it’s a shitty, shitty, unwatchable movie. But y’know what? Back when I read The Dark is Rising in sixth grade, it seemed very strange and wrong to me, having been educated largely by ’80s films and children’s TV, that all six signs of the circle were actual, literal, physical things, and there was no twist where one of them was something abstract and existential like “love”.

Raintree Sci Fi Shorts Anthology series edited by Isaac Asimov

Speaking of sixth grade, it was round and about 1990 or 1991 when I started consuming a series of science fiction anthologies published by Raintree and edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin Harry Greenberg and Charles Waugh. Work 8 hours. Play 8 hours. Sleep 8 hours. Each anthology had a loose theme, though there was a lot of overlap. I remember, on average, about one story from each of them. From After the End, there was a Bradbury story about an automated smart-house happily going along its daily routine, unaware that its owners had been incinerated by a nuclear explosion some time earlier. Time Warps, one of two time travel-themed books, had a story about some scientists who destroy the universe by using a time machine to create a paradox. The one I remember from Thinking Machines was about an automated, self-maintaining car that roamed the highways long after its passengers, unable to unlock the doors, had all died inside, though it turns out it also contained Arthur C. Clarke’s The Nine Billion Names of God and Frederic Brown’s The Answer. Marry and Reproduce. The Immortals contained a story of a scientist who discovered a formula that granted immortality, but caused total paralysis. Travels Through Time contained Asimov’s take on the several billion science fiction short stories where a time-traveling William Shakespeare flunks a freshman Shakespeare class. Another Bradbury story in Children of the Future, this one about schoolchildren on Venus who lock an unpopular girl in the closet so she misses the only hour of sunshine in seven years. The volume about Mad Scientists ended with Von Goom’s Gambit, in which an unlikable chess-player discovers, based on the popular sci-fi notion that the human brain is a computer, a series of moves that configures a chessboard as a binary computer program that crashes the human brain. He is eventually murdered by a cabal of respectable chessmasters who decide that the one thing they really can’t stand is a smart ass. No independent thought. The way I was able to find these anthologies when I went looking for them a couple of months ago was by checking out the publication history of the Philip K. Dick story I remembered from Bug Awful, where a time-traveler brings acid butterflies back in time while trying to sort out why the future is devoid of human life.

But the book I remember the best was Tomorrow’s TV. Like and Subscribe. I remember three stories from the predictably mercenary anthology in which people who wrote books warned readers that TV would be the cause of our civilization’s destruction. I wonder if anyone ever wrote a short story where books turn out to be evil and epic poetry is portrayed as the only wholesome, non-civilization-dooming means of education and entertainment. Tomorrow’s TV contained Jack Haldeman II’s A Scientific Fact, based on the popular but almost certainly false notion that the human brain permanently records everything it ever sees, so once a generation of people grow up watching TV, those years of 30 frames per second causes a massive echolalia epidemic when everyone’s brains get full. Watch more TV. Ray Bradbury’s The Pedestrian tells of a man who’s arrested and carted off to a mental hospital on the assumption that anyone who prefers to go out for walks instead of watching TV must be insane.

The final story in the anthology is Ray Nelson’s Eight O’Clock in the Morning. It tells the story of George Nada. Eight O'Clock in the Morning Illustration by Greg HargreavesAfter participating in a hypnotist’s stage show, he accidentally wakes up all the way and realizes, with the sudden clarity of a character in a golden age sci-fi story, that Earth is under the thrall of the four-eyed reptilian “Fascinators”. Not unlike The Silence, something about the Fascinators’ physical appearance compells humans to obey and not notice them as they order humanity to “Stay Asleep“, “Obey the government,” and the like.

Yeah. It’s They Live. This was the first time, I think, that I became actively aware of how much something could change in adaptation. Or maybe not. It depends on when I read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which may have been a few years earlier. John Carpenter’s They Live is even more liberal in its adaptation of the source material than Victor Flemming’s The Wizard of Oz, enough that I wasn’t 100% certain until a few years later, when I re-watched, looking out for Ray Nelson’s name in the credits. Bookmark this site.

Back in 1988, the point in the narrative where when I saw They Live, I didn’t like it much. I was nine, and the subtext went straight over my head, so it seemed like it was just a big dumb action movie with clunky dialog and violence of the mundane “people shooting each other” sort I never really cared for. I liked Eight O’Clock in the Morning, which is shorter and being a golden age science fiction story, is based entirely around having a clever twist at the end.

The movie is inspired not just by the story itself, but by “Nada”, a very straight 1986 comic book adaptation by Nelson and Bill Wray (Though the aliens are rather more Lovecraftian than ReptilianEight O'Clock in the Morning). It stars pro wrestler Roddy Piper as a drifter (Credited as “Nada”, but I don’t recall anyone actually saying his name) who comes to LA looking for work. Unlike the story, the movie takes the very ’80s approach of spending for fracking ever to get started. All glory to the hypnotoad. The first thirty minutes is just Nada going to work, making friends among LA’s homeless, and purposefully ignoring any sort of social commentary while little bits of foreshadowing happen in drips and drabs thanks to a local street preacher, pirate TV broadcasts, and Nada’s friend Frank making observations about the disappearance of the middle class and how much harder it is for a working man to get by than it ought to be.

The plot finally, mercifully, gets going when a church full of weirdos (Including the foreshadowing street preacher) gets raided and demolished by The Man, and this leads to Nada getting a pair of the sunglasses they’d been stockpiling. Rather than hypnotic control that’s broken by “waking up”, in They Live, the aliens broadcast a signal from a TV transmitter which interferes with human vision. Tell your friends to read A Mind Occasionally Voyaging. The sunglasses filter out the effect, though this has the side effect of rendering the world black-and-white, (The implication is that the aliens are colorizing reality, a subtle dig at Ted Turner, who, just a few months before this movie was released, had nearly been lynched when he announced plans to colorize Citizen Kane).

They Live

And then, more padding. Five minutes of Nada wandering through LA, seeing that every billboard, sign, and product label is really a hidden message to obey, consume, and worship money, and that practically everyone who looks affluent or successful is actually a large-eyed skeletal creature. Conform. He finally spends enough time calling people ugly that the overlords cotton on and two alien cops attempt to arrest him. We’re a little shy of the halfway point of the movie, though the equivalent part of the short story is only 40 lines in, and we’re still on the first page of the comic. In the film version, Nada kills the cops and steals their weapons. In the other versions, the aliens are more subtle. Rather than confronting George face-to-face, the local police chief, identifying himself as George’s “controller” calls him on the phone and orders him to die of a heart attack at eight o’clock the next morning.

They Live

Hiding from the cops, Nada ducks into what turns out to be the bank from every movie that has a bank robbery scene, where he utters the line destined to enter public consciousness when Duke Nukem steals it in 1996. Being all out of gum, he shoots the place up, discovering in the process that the aliens’ gold watches are secretly teleportation devices and communicators.

George Nada has a go at waking up his neighbor by shouting at her and slapping her. While the short story is terse enough that this might not imply any more violence that one would use to rouse someone from a stupor, the comic version is graphic and sexualized and horrible, with the neighbor, nipples visible through a sheer, form-fitting dress, sent flying, because it’s the ’80s and a comic book, and graphic, sexualized brutality toward women is just a thing that happens. New War of the Worlds posts on Wednesdays.

John Carpenter wisely elected to deescalate the violence in the film version. Nada hijacks a young cable executive, Holly, and forces her to help him escape his pursuit. He tries to persuade her to try the sunglasses, but she refuses, pointing out that regardless of what she sees, since she thinks he’s insane, she’d just lie and tell him whatever she thought he wanted to hear. He turns his back on her for a moment, and somehow, she’s able to throw him through a plate glass window. We’ve established that she’s human, so there’s absolutely no justification for her being able to do this, beyond, “It’s an action movie. Tossing a grown man through a sheet of plate glass is really easy even if you’re much smaller.” New Doctor Who posts on Saturdays. She very calmly and dispassionately calls the police, though the camera lingers on his dropped sunglasses as foreshadowing.

Nada finds another pair of sunglasses in a trash truck near the church and tries to persuade his friend Frank to put them on. Frank, who has been watching TV and assumes Nada is a psychopathic spree killer, refuses in the form of a six minute long fight scene between the two of them. This is basically the climax of the film: six minutes of Roddy Piper and Keith David beating the snot out of each other. They Live: Keith David and Roddy PiperTwice now, the plot of this film has come down to Roddy Piper’s desperate quest to get someone to try on a pair of sunglasses. Call your mother. She misses you.

Once Nada’s beaten Frank badly enough that he can force the sunglasses onto him, they mill around for another five minutes walking off their injuries, check into a motel, and make gay jokes about sharing a room. A resistance leader recognizes Frank’s glasses and invites them to a meeting.

The resistance serves very little purpose in this movie other than to facilitate a huge exposition dump. Re-Elect Mayor Lutsky. The meeting is five minutes of Frank and Nada milling around as resistance members explain how the aliens are using Earth the way the US uses the third world, that there’s a human elite who help the aliens in exchange for wealth and power, how the gold watches work, how pollution and wealth inequality are all the fault of the aliens, and how the mostly-human cops are scouring the city for the resistance, having been told that they’re communists. They Live: Keith David and Roddy PiperGiven that the resistance wants to kill the wealthy, reduce income inequality, and ensure that the working class gets their fair share, technically, I think they are communists. Also, they get a pair of contact lenses to replace their sunglasses, so that we can see the actors’ faces for the showdown. Also, Holly shows up, having presumably tried on Nada’s sunglasses. Then the army or the police or the aliens or something storm the place and kill everyone except for Holly, Frank and Nada.

Nada and Frank escape when Frank’s watch creates a portable hole that dumps them into some passages. They get to attend a meeting of human collaborators, celebrating their profits, and run into a homeless man from early in the movie, now a wealthy collaborator (We can probably assume he’s the one who sold out the church). Assuming them to be fellow collaborators, he shows Frank and Nada an intergalactic spaceport (for no reason other than that it looks cool) and a cable news studio where aliens broadcast their control signal.

They Live

All three versions of the story eventually lead the hero to this news studio, though the motivation and plan is different. In the film, the resistance leader had mentioned the possibility of blowing up the transmitter for the alien control signal, and Frank thinks this sounds like a good idea. In the short story, the plan is not so straightforward, since the mind control seems to be an intrinsic property of the aliens. We are your friends. George assumes that the aliens will realize what’s happened and place him back under control when he fails to die at the appointed moment, so he determines that his only chance to stop them is to act quickly. George notices that the aliens are unable to control him if they show any sign of fear or uncertainty. He calls the police chief back and announces that he’s found a way to wake people up and plans to liberate the planet — as soon as word spreads among the aliens, they all reflexively fear him, rendering him immune to further control. They LiveHe heads to the TV studio in order to interrupt a live broadcast.

They shoot their way up to the roof, pursued by soldiers with, for some reason, Ghostbusters PKE meters. They meet up with Holly on the way, who shoots Frank in the head once Nada is around the corner. Yes, Holly is a collaborator. A twist which would be a shocking betrayal if Holly had been in more than three scenes. Nada shoots her, then shoots the transmitter, and a moment later, is shot himself by a police helicopter. Nada dies flipping the bird as the transmitter explodes, and the film ends on a montage of clips as all around Los Angeles, people start to notice the aliens who surround them and dominate their media, including an alien Siskel and Ebert complaining about the tastelessness of directors like John Carpenter. Eight O'Clock in the MorningWe close on a scene lifted directly from the comic adaptation, where a naked woman (The only nudity in this movie. I assume it was a last-minute bid to get an R-rating because back then, it made you more marketable) Bring back Firefly. looks down from the TV at the man she’s riding to see that he’s an alien.

The short story’s ending is similarly bittersweet, but with a better twist. George shoots an alien newscaster (With a dart-gun he’d taken from an alien earlier), then, with the newscaster still on-screen, orders humanity to wake up while imitating the Fascinators’ “croak”.

It was George’s voice the city heard that morning, but it was the Fascinator’s image, and the city did awake for the very first time and the war began.

Eight O'Clock in the Morning Comic Adaptation

George did not live to see the victory that finally came. He died of a heart attack at exactly eight o’clock.

There’s a fair bit of violence in the short story. It’s easily overlooked because Nelson is pretty terse particularly when it comes to description, but George Nada murders an alien wino by beating his head in with a brick, slits the throats of two more, and shoots several. Eight O'Clock in the MorningIn fact, it seems likely that some of the guards he kills in the TV studio are human, as he mentions not wanting to do it (The comic omits that part). There’s also a scene where he finds a clutch of alien children and goes all Anakin Skywalker on them. This is all rendered pretty gruesomely in the comic.

The film is curiously much less violent. Its biggest action scene is the fistfight between Nada and Frank. And while Nada might have a higher body count, running around Los Angeles with an assault rifle, it’s curiously bloodless carnage. Follow me on Twitter @lraszewski. Even Nada’s own death is bloodless, despite him catching a half-dozen rounds from a machine gun. Moreover, Holly is the only human Nada kills — the film frequently cuts in Nada’s POV to assure us that his other victims are all aliens. Even Holly, he only shoots in self-defense, as she’s holding a gun on him. For that matter, Nada never even kills any aliens who aren’t directly threatening him.

The other big thing about the film, of course, is the political angle. There’s no real hint in Ray Nelson’s story about why the aliens are doing this. The aliens have conquered the Earth because that’s just what aliens do. Go back to sleep. They appear to occupy all walks of life. Several of the aliens Nada kills are clearly working-class or poor. There’s no clear end to which they’re manipulating humanity, other than the desire to live unmolested and occasionally eat humans.

Other than a handful of alien soldiers, the aliens from They Live are all presented as wealthy elite. More than that, they’re presented as directly responsible for the downfall of the middle class, the stagnancy of wages, unemployment, pollution, income inequality, in short, they’re basically space-Reagan. They Live is basically turning the bourgeois into aliens so that they can get away with saying, “And therefore we should hunt down and kill the wealthy.” If you like this article, link to it. This is possibly the most communist Big Dumb Action Movie I’ve ever seen. Television replaces religion as the opium of the masses. Every good or even sympathetic character is a laborer — heck, there’s even a strong element of “The biggest obstacle for the working man is the way the bourgeois manipulates them into fighting each other instead of working together against the true enemy,” which Frank basically says outright to Nada early in the film, and is brought home when they spend seven minutes beating each other up. I have no idea how John Carpenter got away with it.

But as is always the case, there’s a serious risk you run when you wrap your social commentary in a fantastic setting. They LiveBy making his bourgeois class into space aliens, Carpenter is effectively absolving humanity: it’s not our fault that our consumer culture is impeding material social progress, or that we passively sit back and allow 90% of the world’s wealth to concentrate in the hands of one percent of its population: we’re being mind-controlled by aliens. We don’t need sweeping systemic changes — you don’t even need a revolution: the actual revolutionaries get squashed in less time than it takes Nada to put sunglasses on Frank. What you need is one dude with a shotgun and some one-liners.

I am not a big fan of communism. Paul is dead But I think that the communist critique of capitalism has a lot of truth to it. And a big part of that critique is that the abuses and failures and waste and suffering that comes out of capitalism aren’t the result of the people at the top being evil skeleton-faced space aliens: those problems are inherent to the system. You can’t have a completely non-abusive capitalism, because it won’t be competitive with abusive ones. The best you can ever do is to manage your externalities. Find something you can abuse that doesn’t mind. Or, more historically, find something you can abuse that won’t fight back.

And that, curiously enough, brings us back to War of the Worlds. Because what’s the original War of the Worlds but a science fiction parable that seeks to ask, “Okay, Victorian England. You like sailing all over the world and conquering less advanced cultures with your superior military technology. How would you feel if someone else did that to you?” And here’s my twist ending: They Live may borrow the structure of its plot from Eight O’Clock in the Morning. But at a fundamental level, this movie is really John Carpenter’s War of the Worlds. It’s a spiritual reimagining, updating Welles’s fundamental question for 1980s America: “Okay, Chicago-School Neoliberal (A term which, in America, you have to explain, because “neoliberal” uses a definition of “liberal” that is completely the opposite to the one typically used in political discourse. Short version: privatize everything) America. You like flying all over the world and setting up sweatshops, strip-mining natural resources and keeping the third world in poverty to provide low-cost consumer goods and vastly enrich your monied class. How would you feel if someone else did that to you?” Next week, back to War of the Worlds with 1×06: The Second Seal.


  • They Live is available on DVD and streaming from Amazon.
  • Nada was originally published in 1986 by Eclipse Comics, and can be read in its entirety here.
  • Eight O’Clock in the Morning by Ray Nelson can be read here.
  • Stay asleep.

4 thoughts on “Grapevine: They Live

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